Neither shooters nor games set in the second world war are exactly rare, I’ll grant you. In fact, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway is weakest when it tries to be yet another WW2 shooter, but it contains the germ of something else. At its best, this is a tactics game played from a first-person perspective. You shoot Germans, but you also direct teams of soldiers around the field. Mastering tactical control over your troops is essential to mastering the game. Put this way, the Brothers in Arms series might seem like a mild innovation.
Here’s a screenshot from Starcraft.
Starcraft lets the player survey the battlefield from above. We erroneously call this view a map. Europa Universalis has a map, a globe divided into provinces coloured according to the empire that controls them. This makes a certain sense within EU‘s scale and setting. Starcraft does not have a map. It has a battlespace. You command your troops as a disembodied eye, zooming across the battlefield and directing everything from factories to individual soldiers. You see all that they see, and they respond to your orders instantaneously. All Starcraft play, and the play of the entire ‘real-time-strategy’ genre, revolves around instantaneous knowledge and potency. The whole concept of ‘micro’ — micromanagement of individual soldiers and vehicles for a tactical advantage — is an expression of this immediate access to information and power.
It also — and this is interesting precisely because it is never discussed — depends on the collapse of the distinction between the tactical and the strategic. Commanding soldiers and factories simultaneously is more than a generic conceit designed to remove boring abstraction. When these two spheres are compressed, the space in between — what military theorists call the ‘operational’ sphere, including intelligence and problems of organisation like logistics, communications and planning — is elided. When military writers refer to the ‘fog of war’, they refer to the entire problem of knowing what is going on during a battle — in one’s own army as much as the enemy’s. The ‘fog of war’ in an RTS is simply the limit of what your minions can see. The contrast here is between vision and communication. Starcraft is a hypervisual, autistic fantasy of command as a button press, which is why expert players must train above all for speed. This is what real generals might wish they could do, but can’t — yet.
Brothers in Arms does have a map, a concession to ludic sensibilities or the difficulty of making imaginary soldiers convey accurate information to the player, but this is not where play occurs. Instead, you must command from the front, directing machine gunners and riflemen only to places and targets that you can actually see. Suddenly, the fantasy of command breaks down. What lies beyond that rise, or those houses? Can that machine gun position be flanked? Is there a clear line of sight from the enemy positions to your avenue of approach? You can’t see without going there. And, when you do, you come under enemy fire. Now you have to worry about your own survival while your men are being shot and calling for help or orders. You order an element to advance to a position here it can provide supporting fire, but it is gunned down by enemies you can’t even see. Welcome to the fog of war.
It’s not a great game — too much cover-shooter and not enough freewheeling tactics game for my taste — but it is a fantastic premise. There’s a lot of interesting ground to be explored here; whether audiences and developers trained to expect fantasies of instantaneous power would be willing to seize it is an open question.